Years ago, when I was single, I’d sit in the sauna at my club with some pals and joke about Françoise, my beautiful French fantasy bride-to-be. She was, in other words, a fiction, and we carried on running commentary about her life: her mobbed-up father, Thibaut; her ski-champion brother, Yves (crippled in a car accident, poor fellow); her wealth fabuleux. One afternoon, a guy who wasn’t in on the joke sighed as he wiped sweat from his face:
“You are a lucky man,” he said.
“I am,” I said. “She’s the perfect woman.”
Later on as I shook hands with my friend Roy, a married man, he put an older-brotherly hand on my shoulder.
“Reminds me,” he said, “of the story about the young journalist who interviewed an elder statesman, and after he’d put away his notepad asked the great man — who was known for appearing at balls and parties with beautiful women — why it was he’d never married. ‘I spent my life looking for the perfect woman,’ the old man said. The journalist nodded, thinking — as young men do — that he understood: ‘And, of course, you never found her.’ The old man smiled. ‘On the contrary. Trouble is she was looking for the perfect man.’”
Roy and I shook hands. I headed east, he headed south, and when I came to the corner of Central Park South and 6th Avenue, I saw across the way, standing near the Hotel St. Moritz, the actress Jacqueline Bisset. She was thirty-eight at the time; I was a couple of years younger.
The light changed and we began walking towards one another. She was wearing black slacks and heels and a man’s white shirt, with the back of the collar turned up. Newsweek had recently proclaimed her “the most beautiful film actress of all time.” Now here she was, and I could see it was true. I smiled, and it must have been a big, blameless smile, because when our eyes met, she smiled back.
We passed on the avenue, and a voice in my perfervid brain fairly shouted, Turn around! Catch up to her! Speak to her! Forget about Françoise! But I didn’t. And thank God! I can only imagine her reaction; can almost feel the pepper spray burning my eyes; the stinging embarrassment of rejection at the least.
So I walked on (still smiling though, because it’s a kick to see the World’s Most Beautiful Woman), and as I came to the entrance of the St. Moritz a woman came briskly out of the hotel and turned right so that she was a few paces ahead of me. I noticed that she was very shapely, and my eyes lingered on her figure.
But when I got to the Plaza Hotel at the end of the block, I stopped. I realized I’d forgotten all about Miss Bisset.
The perfect woman! It hit me as though a cartoon anvil had just fallen from the penthouse level of the Plaza and struck me clean on my thick skull. If that’s who I’m looking for, I realized, I’ll never find her, and not because — thinking of the old man in Roy’s story — she’d reject me, but because I wouldn’t recognize her. There’d always be some other lovely thing around the next corner; some other woman, perfectly alluring in her own way.
If it’s earthly perfection you seek, you’ll never cease seeking.
And I swear that in that instant I became a free man — free to marry, that is — and the first and only face that came into my mind as I was crossing 5th Avenue was that of the beautiful woman who is now my wife. It took nearly a year for me to propose to her, but . . . that’s another story.
A quarter-century on I’ve learned that marriage really is a midsummer night’s dream, and most husbands and wives will acknowledge with Lysander that the “course of true love never did run smooth.” It never will. And why should it? But love and marriage are ever more preferable than the serial lickerish fecklessness celebrated in popular culture.
Our culture is more sexualized in 2008 than it was in 1968, the year Jacqueline Bisset appeared with Steve McQueen in Bullitt, the film that made her (and the Mustang fastback) a star. It was also the year of Humane Vitae. No connection obviously, but these days, with so much anodyne palaver about change (looking for the perfect world), commonsense should recognize that the decline both of the number and stability of marriages bodes ill for the future.
And for any still-single men who may be reading this: Miss Bisset has never married. If you pass her on the street and stop to talk, will you tell her I said hello?